Crazy Useful Markets

The whole point of making beautiful, useful things is getting them into the hands of people who want and need them. Ideally, as efficiently as possible.

At this point in time, the ways and means of getting the products of cottage industry into the hands of consumers efficiently are a little murky. The distribution system for cottage industry is generally pretty different from that of items mass-produced or produced by large companies. There is, for the most part, no efficient distribution system. There are, of course, exceptions. Small gourmet food companies, for example, can sometimes find a way into the larger distribution system, and a place on the shelves of large chain stores. But that’s not true for the vast majority, and in any case I’m not sure it’s really the goal.

Cottage Industry is about Quality and Connection

My personal inspiration is Bubbles, in Arcata, California. The Bubbles shop has been around FOREVER (well, since 1973), and there’s a good reason for this. For the many years that I lived in Arcata, Bubbles was my source for glycerine soap and body lotion. Why? Because it’s the best, and because I could afford it. They make their own soap and lotion, and they price it as if people are going to use it every day (which I did). Sure, they have unique, fun, and extravagant gift items — some they make, some they don’t — and those things are generally more expensive than the everyday stuff. But the everyday stuff is awesome, and even though you can get cheaper soap at Safeway or CVS, it’s so worth it to pay just a little bit more to get the magic: high quality products made by people who are passionate about what they do, and who live in my own community. I still load up on Bubbles whenever I go back to Arcata for a visit.

Now, If I could have anything I wanted, there would be a distribution system for getting items from small producers anywhere in the world, to small outlets (stores) anywhere in the world. But that system, as far as I know, doesn’t exist.

So, we have to look to the currently valid options for cottage industries to get their products to the public in a way that is profitable, and beneficial for consumers.

Below, you will find ideas for ways that buyers and shoppers can find each other. They are broken down into general categories. I have also tried to provide resources to help

As always, this is a work in progress.

Marketplaces

Online

Like every mode of distribution and sales, the world of online marketplaces has its pros and cons. People much more qualified than I am have written volumes on the subject, and so I will leave it to them (see some resources adjacent).

For me, as both a seller and a consumer, the biggest trade-off that I experience is between the potential for a much larger customer base, and the difficulty of getting noticed and making a connection with customers.

  • Etsy. It’s fair to say that Etsy has revolutionized the world of handmade, taking it out of the relatively limited world of craft fairs and farmers markets, and exploding it into a worldwide trade. Etsy has undergone many changes since they first started — some good, some…er…not so great. But on the whole, Etsy has been a tremendous boon for everyone, both buyers and sellers of handmade items and supplies.
  • Amazon Handmade. Amazon is a relatively recent entrant into the world of handmade. I have to think that Amazon doesn’t get into anything unless they think they can make money on it. So, to me, the fact that they have this dedicated service indicates to me that handmade is on the rise.

Physical

A physical marketplace has the opposite trade-off than that of the online marketplace: it is easier to get noticed by the customer base, but the customer base is much smaller.

Temporary
  • Craft Fairs and Shows. There are now many websites that cater to the handmade and cottage industry crowd, providing a wide variety of lists of fairs and shows. Some are more useful than others, and almost all charge merchants some kind of fee to access their information.
  • Farmers’ Markets. Farmers’ markets have now expanded to include a wide variety of handmade items.
  • Flea Markets. Like farmers’ markets, flea markets now often include stalls for new, handmade items.
  • Pop-up shops. Pop-up shops arose as a way for retail space owners to make use of empty storefronts.
Permanent
  • Storefront stalls. This category includes venues like antique malls, year-round crafters’ and farmers’ markets, co-ops, and mall carts. Basically, they enable you to have a permanent space within a storefront, without having to support a storefront all on your own.
  • Individual storefronts.
  • Home-based shops. Cottage industry does not just refer to handmade items. There are also goods and services that are best operated out of a home-base shop (farriers, stone masons, carpenters all come to mind).
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